App Inventor – Fast Track to Android Apps

Back in March there was quite a bit of hype around a system called App Inventor.  It was an online tool for creating mobile apps (android), originally developed by Google and later provided by MIT.  You can never tell how long these things will last, but it is still available, and still free.  If you want to create your own apps, then this is probably the quickest and easiest way.

Continue reading for an overview of how the system works.  Note, you will need a Google ID in order to use the system – for example from GMail or Google+.

Shown below is the visual interface for designing the appearance of you app.  You can drag and drop items from the panel on the left, and adjust them using the Properties panel on the right.

In the example below I created a simple multiple choice question.  There’s a static label for the question, four option buttons, and two feedback labels (set to be invisible initially).  It’s a little restrictive in how you lay things out, but that’s more to do with Android itself.

All of the interactivity is added through a separate programming environment.  It’s quite a friendly system (based on Scratch), in which you connect blocks together like jigsaw pieces. You can open it by clicking on the Open the Blocks Editor button.

The editor will appear similar that shown below.  The My Blocks tab shows all of the items that you have added in the visual editor.  The middle column below shows the various jigsaw pieces for your chosen item (in this case one of the option buttons).  On the right you can see an actual program – when one of the option buttons is clicked, one of the feedback buttons is made visible.  You just drag and drop the pieces, connecting them together as required.

Block Editor interface

There are several ways to test your app.  If you have the rights to install software on your computer, then you can follow the online instructions to set-up an emulated phone (see below).  Installing the software will also stop the error messages when you open the block editor.

It is also possible to package the application online, and download it to your phone using a QR code (below), or just have your phone connected to your computer via USB (although this takes a bit more setting up).

In Closing

The programming interface might take a bit of time to get used to, and even simple programs can sprawl across the screen, but I don’t know of any faster or easier way to create an app.

If you are interested in trying it out for yourself, then there is an excellent set of tutorials available here.

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